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Winning when you start at RFP release

You better be good at guessing...

If you don’t sell a commodity, starting unprepared to win at RFP release is an organizational failure. If you don’t sell a commodity, you’ve missed your chance to develop an information advantage. But it takes solid organization to know what information to gather and how to assess it to turn it into a winning proposal. 

Now that I’ve said that, let’s talk about winning at RFP release. Because it happens. If you want to achieve a high win rate, you won’t let it happen. Moving from a 20% win rate to a 30% win rate increases your revenue by 50% with the same number of leads. So a high win rate should be a contractor's top priority, second only to maintaining excellent past performance. Nonetheless, it happens.

Winning at RFP release can be like playing a game. Achieving the maximum score without any real customer insight involves optimizing the proposal around the evaluation criteria and process. It’s about organizing your proposal and using the right words to score well. It’s easy to fall into the "say anything to win" trap, because words are all you’ve got to work with at that stage.

It helps to understand the specific customer’s evaluation process. If the customer is scoring you based on “strengths,” you really need to know what they consider a “strength.” Is it a feature or qualification that fulfills an RFP requirement? Or is it something that goes beyond the requirements? Is it just something that appeals to them? Does it have to be a differentiator? Different customers define the term differently. But if you’re starting at RFP release, you probably don’t know. You have to guess.

You may also have to resort to word games when designing your offering. Designing your offering by writing about it can be a terrible mistake. When designing your offering, you are going to have to consider trade-offs. If you don’t know what the customer’s preferences are, you’re just going to have to guess. Or weasel-word it. You might have to make the wording a little fuzzy to avoid committing so you can offer the customer both sides of a trade-off while appearing to be flexible and willing to partner with them.

Generally it is better to take risks and be decisive than it is to try to be everything to everybody. Your win rate will come down to how good your guesses are. A proposal that is everything to everybody will score below a proposal that is exceptional and insightful every time. 

It is better to risk losing by being exceptional and wrong than it is to be completely and totally satisfactory and win occasionally only because your price is lower. It is even better to have done your pre-RFP homework so you can win by being exceptional and insightful. But since that’s probably not you, you might be able to be exceptional and right because you guessed well. The good news is that even though by starting at RFP release you will lose to a company that is exceptional and has insight, few contractors know how to write an exceptional and insightful proposal, even when they have the insight!

If you find yourself starting at RFP release, seek differentiators that correspond to the evaluation criteria and an offering design that differentiates by taking risks to be categorically better than simply meeting the RFP requirements. Take risks to offer substance instead of weasel-wording. If you are starting at RFP release, you are probably new and the customer doesn’t know you or trust you. If you are meek, compliant, and ordinary you can only win on price. But if your proposal inspires the customer with aspirations that turn out to match theirs, while also being compliant, qualified, competent, and substantiated, they might just pick you over someone else they already know who submitted an ordinary proposal.

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Carl Dickson

Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY

Carl is an expert at winning in writing. The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

Click here to learn how to engage Carl as a consultant.

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